Born in 1929, Yayoi Kusama is probably Japan’s most famous living artist. My husband and I recently went to see two of her infinity room installations at the Tate Modern in London (see below).
Kusama’s well-off parents managed wholesale seed nurseries, which perhaps in part explains her fixation on plant forms in her work, as she drew budding flowers for long periods at their seed-harvesting grounds. As a schoolgirl she also worked to support the war effort by planting crops and by working at a textiles factory, making parachutes and military uniforms.
An anxious child, she also developed terrifying mental health problems and hallucinations at a young age, seeing “the pattern on a tablecloth bleeding into and beyond the surrounding room, for instance, or an endless sea of violets that ‘spoke’ to her” (Tate exhibition catalogue).
Despite parental disapproval, she was determined to work as an artist. She was taught the traditional Nihonga style of realist painting, before adopting a more abstract style in the late 1940s. As her art evolved over the years it became characterised by its strength of colour, its animation and its use of organic shapes suggesting “stellar, aquatic or subterranean worlds” (Tate).
She burnt most of her early Nihonga work before travelling to the USA in the late 1950s, to seek out artistic opportunities in New York (unusually for a woman from patriarchal and deeply conservative Japan). She was an adept self-publicist, and managed, with what seems bewildering speed, to insert herself into the New York avant-garde scene.
“Only Andy Warhol comes close to Kusama in his expansive and totalising practice, his disregard for distinctions between high and low art.” – Frances Morris, Tate exhibition catalogue
Between 1958 and 1968 she moved from painting to sculpture, collage and onto installations, films, performances and “happenings”, including political action and counter-cultural events. In 1961-65 she began her Sex Obsession series (dominated by phallus-like structures) and her Food Obsession series.
“I am terrified by just the thought of something long and ugly like a phallus entering me, and that is why I make so many of them. The thought of continually eating something like macaroni, spat out by machinery, fills me with fear and revulsion, so I make macaroni sculptures. I make them and then keep on making them, until I bury myself in the process. I call this ‘obliteration’.“
I find art covered in cocks childish and far from appealing, aesthetically, and a bizarre way of dealing with a kind of sex phobia. However, her relationship with sexuality was clearly ambiguous. In the late 1960s and early 1970s she embraced the hippie scene, and set up audio-visual-light performances with naked dancers, designed polka dot clothing with revealing cutaways and staged a gay wedding with an ‘orgy’ two-person wedding dress. Indeed, the text in catalogue from a Tate retrospective tells us:
By November 1969 Kusama’s name had become so synonymous with sex that her name was licensed to a pornographic tabloid, ‘Kusama’s Orgy’.
Meanwhile, photo series Walking Piece (1966), taken by Eiko Hosoe, initially seems to playfully celebrate and trade in on her outsider, “exotic” identity amid the very white New York art world, as she appears dressed in a bright pink, floral kimono, with long plaits studded with more flowers. However, later slides show her apparently wiping away tears dejectedly, suggesting an ambiguous relationship with the USA, too.
Her health began to suffer, and her depression to become unmanageable. Eventually, she returned to Japan in 1973, taking with her materials given to her by her late US pal Joseph Cornell (of shadow box fame), with whom she had had a relationship that was “passionately romantic, but platonic” (though he does appear to be strangling her in the picture below).
Since 1977 Kusama has voluntarily lived in a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo, and sees her art work as a psychological necessity. At first her the scale of her work was reduced, focusing on small works in ceramics and collage, before moving to large multi-panel installations and paintings.
In the 1980s she began to embrace Japanese pop culture and spectacle, and rather than continuing to be considered as controversial by the Japanese establishment, by the 1990s she was embraced as “a respected and revered grand dame of the avant garde”.
In her sixties, in 1992 came her first iconic pumpkin sculptures – her penises have morphed into gourds and tubers, and she has created a whole iconography of plants, flowers, animals and people, with misleadingly naive decorative elements.
From the late 1990s she focused on room-sized installations. These include mysterious and immersive mirror rooms, filled with light, and others filled with vinyl balloons in unusual forms, covered in polka dots, which “is a shorthand signifying her hallucinatory visions”.
My husband and I visited two of her installations at the Tate in November 2021. We saw Chandelier of Grief (created in her eighties) less than a month after a family bereavement, and it’s full of boundless sadness and absolute beauty, which can’t be captured in a photo, although I tried. The room creates the illusion of an infinite universe made up of rotating crystal chandeliers:
We also saw her 2011 infinity room Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life: a pool of shallow water covers part of the floor, and lights flicker on and off in an endlessly repeating cycle, perhaps mirroring the illumination and snuffing out of light in life and death. Kusama has spent decades trying to conjure a sense of infinite space – and I would say she’s succeeded. As the Tate guide says, these works invite “the viewer to suspend [their] sense of self and accompany Kusama on her ongoing journey of self-obliteration” – if only for a strictly timed three-minute period each, since these works are very popular.